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2011 Hyundai Sonata Turbo

Alex Kierstein November 29, 2010 First Impressions, Hyundai Reviews, Reviews 47 Comments

What happened to the attractive, distinctive midsize sedan – where did all the Alfa Romeo Guilia TIs and Triumph Dolomite Sprints go? OK, tinworm probably explains a lot of that, but Hyundai’s new Sonata Turbo is a step toward the midsize getting its mojo back.

Hyundai had me down to La Jolla to sample the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Turbo (and the Hybrid – more on that later), and I was able to spend a couple hours getting to know the newest and highest-spec Sonata in the Southern California hills. What stood out and why should you care about the Sonata Turbo?

Glad you asked. The big story in this car is, of course, the forced induction. They could have slapped a V6 in it and called it a day – the Lambda, has been around for years and happily powered the previous generation Sonata, among others. Why innovate when you can coast? Luckily, a young engineer named Dr. Han with a vision intervened, and an Azera was snagged from the corporate pool, the V6 was chucked in the trash, and a new and more advanced version of the already extant Theta four-banger was shoehorned inside, sporting direct injection and a turbocharger. Both lighter and more powerful than the V6 it replaced, with 15-20% greater fuel efficiency to boot, the mule was used to demonstrate to the Hyundai brass what a paper proposal couldn’t. Once the bigwigs had driven it, a green-light on further development wasn’t far behind.

Delicious, delicious technology. Taste the magic.

The final product of the V6 engine replacement program is a highly advanced powerplant, dubbed the Theta II with GDI (gasoline direct injection). The twin-scroll turbo’s housing and the exhaust manifold are a single piece, made out of cast stainless steel, in a new process that makes it significantly more resilliant to heat damage than a cast iron unit. I didn’t even know you could cast stainless before seeing the unit on a stand, next to that same Dr. Han of Franken-Azera fame. He was happy to point out some of the other features – a special ducting that makes the intercooler more efficient and reduces drag (including dropping the charge temperature by 50 degrees), an electronically actuated wastegate for better boost control, and that the twin-scroll technology provides 20% more available manifold pressure at a given speed than a single scroll unit.

Only a few years ago, Hyundai wasn’t even designing their own engines, instead making do with using Mitsubishi-derived units in their vehicles, and now they’ve got a class-leading, high-tech engine. The most vanilla segment on the road just got poured all over it. The concept is exciting, but there’s a lot of room for disappointment. The spec sheet is nice and all, but road manners?

Pretty good, thank you very much. I didn’t sink into a drooling, vacant stupor after driving it for a few minutes (I’m looking at you, Nissan Altima). And despite it being stuck in EcoPedal mode, smoothing throttle inputs and dialing back the power to save on dino juice, a forceful mashing of the gas kicked the turbine into boost and moved the Sonata with emphasis, and very little lag to boot. In other words, the power didn’t lurk too far under the surface, even with the maximum eco-obfuscation in effect. Even pointed up hill, mustering an extra-legal velocity was simple – push the pedal to the floor, let the transmission ratchet down two gears, and you’re off. And despite that fact that we’re dealing with a traditional automatic, torque converter and all, shifts were quick and the turbo played nice with the transmission.

Back when engine management computers had less processing power than a , 274 horses routed through unequal length half-shafts would have resulted in a smoking hulk residing in a ditch. Technology is an amazing thing, and you’re hearing that directly from the lips of an avowed Luddite. And all this wizardry works very well in the Sonata. You’ll never mistake it for a Honda S2000, but it took corners with admirably little lean and no drama from the driven wheels. While understeer inevitably popped up when pushed, you won’t ever be autocrossing it, so who cares? The electric steering was a little strange initially, I have to be honest. But I warmed up to it quickly and stopped noticing it shortly thereafter. In a dynamic sense, the Turbo came off a bit like a Saab – a good blend of quasi-grand-tourer comfort and enough sporty flavor and driver back to keep things interesting.

Dash plastics look better in person than in this press kit photo.

Here’s the bad news – there no manual, and there won’t be a manual. I’m particularly fond of large-ish sedans with a proper transmission (in fact, the other day I spent some time in a rarer-than-a-sober-day-for-Lindsay-Lohan 2010 BMW 535i xDrive with a manual box, and it was glorious), but according to the marketing and beancounter types I’m a dinosaur living in the center of the earth, so they don’t make cars for me. As I mentioned before, the automatic was actually quite good, so the 99.999999999% of Sonata shoppers who’d be choosing an auto anyhow will be satisfied. The good news is that Hyundai brass are not ruling out a sportier “R” version, and I heard this directly from the source – John Krafcik, Hyundai Motor America president and CEO, who was riding in the back seat during my drive time. Since the man owns and loves a RHD Caterham enough to wrangle with the California Air Resources Board at length to get it legal for the state, I’m assuming if it comes to fruition it will be pretty good. That being said, the SE trim level includes very competently tuned sport suspension already.

Here’s the other good news: starting at around $24,145, the Sonata Turbo is a hell of a deal. You can use it the same way as any other road-appliance out there, numbly conveying yourself from point A to point B, if you’d like. And you can probably beat the 38.7 MPG I saw on my drive by doing that. (That number, by the way, occurred on a 50 mile drive at an average speed of 50 mph, so it isn’t too far off the EPA’s estimated 33 mpg highway figure. City driving is rated at 22 mpg, by the way.) You can rest assured that when the mountain passes come up, or some pleb falls asleep at the wheel of a lesser sedan in front of you, all those feisty Korean ponies are ready to charge. It’s point and squirt, and it’s about as entertaining as they come in this segment with the death of the Mazdaspeed6. The lack of a proper manual may keep it off a few enthusiasts’ short-lists, but for everyone else you can now get a bucket full of smiles with your midsize front-driver for a small extra charge.

  • Alff

    Where did they go? They all got fat! I want to live in the alternate universe where a Guilia TI is still considered mid-size.

  • Number_Six

    If it's substantially lighter than the V-6, this I-4 would be a great standard motor for the Genesis coupe.

    • Deartháir

      I believe this is the standard engine for the Genesis. Most Genesisesises that people come in trying frantically to trade out of have the 2.0T engine; I've only seen one with the V6.

      • omg_grip

        I think they are similar and/or related motors, but the 2.0t in the genesis isnt direct injected, and only puts out around 200hp.

        All in good time I think this newer 2.0 will find its way into the coupe…..then I wonder what they will bring as their top spec motor. Tau V8?

        • Han_Solex

          I asked Mr. Krafcik if a Tau would fit between the rails in a Genesis coupe. He gave me a noncommittal answer with a twinkle in his eye. But yes, the GDI version of the Theta II should DEFINITELY make its way into the Genesis coupe. Ditch the V6, upgrade the 4 cyl to the GDI version, and slip the V8 into the engine bay.

          • FuzzyPlushroom

            Definitely. Pointing the engine the correct way would also make it a nearly-practical swap into an old Volvo. Wait, what?

      • Number_Six

        It's got 210HP; I'm talking about the 274HP version from the Sonata T.

        • Deartháir

          I think you're right. I thought they had upgraded to this same engine for 2011, but a quick check of the Googles implies I am totally wrong.

          • Eggwich

            I like when people admit they are wrong. I love when people admit they are totally wrong. (I am totally wrong pretty often.)

            • Syrax

              Does the addition of depth makes it better? At the risk of being totally wrong I don't think totally wrong is wronger than wrong.

              • zaddikim

                Jesus, you've done it now. If some idiot divides by zer[CARRIER LOST]

              • Eggwich

                You are totally incorrect!

                Seriously, and I hate that I feel the need to reply to this, while there isn't really anything different, in my mind "wrong" is thinking that Mustangs have rotary powerplants, while "totally wrong" is thinking they are rotaries and made by Chrysler. (Levels of ludicrosity, you see.) Wrong=admitting some fault. Totally wrong=admitting total fault. I know that doesn't have anything to do with my Chrysler rotary example but I like it so it stays.

                • Syrax

                  I truly see, I was totally wrong. At least I know Mustangs come with radial engines made by Pontiac.

  • marmer

    Big ol' turbo four! Saab 9000 all over again!

    • All it needs is a hatch.

      • Really, even if we refuse to have a Golf-back shape, why didn't the Mazda 6 fastback design catch on?

        • Eggwich

          Even as a hatchlover, it was pretty weird looking. There's one by my work, and I'm all like "weird!" when I see it. Then I see the wagon Camry down the block and I'm like "ha weird!" ("Ha weird!" outranks "weird!")

        • FuzzyPlushroom

          I was thinking about that the other day, since many saloon cars in Europe are actually hatchbacks with faux-trunks like the old Mazda6 (which was heavily outsold by its similar, but less-practical, brother – and I'd still have the wagon, anyway).

          What set off that line of thought? A four-door Plodge Shadance.

    • tonyola

      You mean it'll be such a flop in the US that it'll drive Hyundai into the arms of GM? I hope not.

  • CJinSD

    38.7 mpg? Sounds like Hyundai is using the same trip computer supplier that BMW does. Car and Driver achieved 24 mpg when they tested the Sonata 2.0T. They also put it against the clock and found that it wasn't actually as quick as the V6s that it failed to use less fuel than.

    • Han_Solex

      The mileage I got wasn't during any official testing regimen. I got the 38.7 MPG over a 50 mile road course, at an average speed of about 50 mph, in Eco mode. Your results may vary.

      • CJinSD

        My question is did you achieve this mileage by starting with a known quantity of fuel in the tank and then replenishing it afterward to see what was missing or did you trust Hyundai's trip computer in a Hyundai supplied press car?

      • Texan_Idiot25

        My CRX HF averaged 38.x on a bad day. I have my doubts a full size sedan is getting that, not with US gallons.

        Damn our measurement system.

    • Deartháir

      This sounds suspiciously like someone incorrectly switching back and forth between Imperial and US gallons… 38.7 mpg sounds totally accurate and feasible if they are using Imperial gallons; that would be pretty solid average fuel economy up here in Canadia, and should equate to about 30 or 32 mpg down there, if memory serves me correctly.

      • Han_Solex

        Who uses Imperial gallons anymore? I thought you guys were using the metric bushel. Or perhaps just fractional poutine basket volumes. To translate, I got 59 PBVU/mile. (Poutine Basket Volume Units)

        • zaddikim

          You just made my day with PBVU. I'll be sure to find a way of confusing the heck out of my cow-orkers with that one.

        • Deartháir

          Actually we use L/100km, but people always want us to convert it to mpg… but nothing is measured in US gallons up here. (Hell, nothing is measured in gallons at all), but 30 mpIg is "meh", and 40 mpIg is "good".

  • My '98 A4 1.8 turbo with its pathetic 150hp is weeping on the driveway. Also, more and more often I drive new cars where the auto box is far superior to the row-your-own. I wonder if manufacturers are deliberately driving folk away from manual shifts?

  • I just can't get into the looks of this car. It's like a Mercedes CLS that melted. I much prefer the Kia Optima which I believe has the same powerplant.

    • Han_Solex

      Funny, some of us Hoons said the exact same thing. In complete and total honesty, I like it – maybe more in theory than execution though. Some of the detailing, like the chromed character line down the side, seemed contrived. But the spirit of the sheetmetal, that it's more exciting and, for lack of a better word, more alive than your given CamCordTima, really spoke to me. I just hope it raises the bar a bit. I'll say for the moment I like it better than any other basic FWD sedan on the road, and that I'm open to it being knocked out of that spot by any other manufacturer taking the bait and spicing up their cars.

    • It is an oddly proportioned old heiffer, with a high-mounted glasshouse seemingly too big for the hull. With the Genesis, Hyundai were demonstrating that they had a pretty confident new corporate identity. They seem to have forgotten it pretty quickly.

      • pj134

        It may be oddly perportioned, but at least it has excellent visibility. I have an 09, and it does it's job description well.

        • Valid point. The sight-lines are almost entirely unobscured. Rare these days!

  • Alff

    BTW, I'm with you on the manual large sedan-y goodness. Two of my preferred cars have been a mid-80's Audi 5000 and similar vintage Acura Legend, both with 5-speeds. Even back then, these were uncommonly rare critters.

    • JayP

      I will always regret letting my '88 5000 quattro go in on trade. It was a real treat to drive, even with just 130hp. I'd realized the 2002 A4 I most recently owned was about the same interior space, less trunk and about 400lbs heavier. It was fun, but not like my old '88.

  • Thank you for making me laugh at Rooster Sauce. I put some on some gumbo I made last night, and it was delightful.

    I would rather have gumbo with Rooster Sauce atop it than any mid-size yawn-mobile.

  • CJinSD

    Whenever I see the new Sonata I wonder where I've seen it before. Is it a marriage of an old Lexus ES300 and a 2003 Camry? Well, I was at a traffic light with a new Sonata and a Toyota Camry Solara. The Sonata is a 4 door Solara. They look like they share many a body part and trim piece when they're side by side. Maybe that's why it doesn't have as much rear seat headroom as other sedans in the class.

  • Nice photos Mr. Solex…

  • I'm still on the fence about the styling, but I have to give credit where credit is due. At least it got me on the fence. Hell, most midsize cars drive by my pasture and I don't even notice. At least this one makes me take notice, even if it isn't particularly beautiful.

    As far as performance, I think we are experiencing a rebirth of turbo engines. You can get great fuel economy from them without a lot of tradeoff in performance. Turbo technology has been around for eons and has actually made some pretty incredible advances in recent years, and overall is cheaper (and keeps the vehicle lighter) than a hybrid powerplant. Sure, 38 mpg is no 60 mpg, but the difference isn't all that great for most people.

  • vwminispeedster

    I really like this new Sonata and many of the recent offerings from Hyundai and Kia. Now if I was just a few years older, a couple rungs higher up the corporate ladder and if the Hyundai Equus was on sale now I'd be all over it like a fat kid on cake. I sat in one at the SF auto show and I was sold. My dad and I agreed the back seat would be a pleasant place to be in on a cannonball run at 120mph down I5 from SF to LA. Who needs high speed rail?

  • Lex

    I'm rather happy for the Koreans. Even going back to just 2003-04 when i lived there, the KDM (will that ever be cool?) offerings were somewhere between "i guess it could be worse" and "dear god, please make it go away." I was willing to buy Korean after living there, because i did realize that they were serious about building good automobiles…even if they weren't quite doing it yet. These days, i'd buy Korean over Toyota, Chrysler, GM and probably even Honda…though i'm not a fan of the Sonata's lines.

  • Maymar

    It's amazing what a few years will do. My parents have an '08 Sonata. Basic, silver, automatic, possibly the most generic, anonymous car in the world. But it's roomy, pleasant, and reasonably efficient – just the ticket for my non-car people parents.

    This, on the other hand, interests me also.

  • pj134

    AWD and a stick and I'll sell an eighth of my kidney for one.

  • Eggwich

    Quality writing, Mr. Kierstein. The Sonata, Optima, and Kazashi are all midsize sedans (I think) that the regulars over at The Car Lounge all gush about, and I don't know if I've ever seen one in the flesh (well, I saw the Sonata at the auto show over the weekend.)

    Aren't there any past sedans that were common in the US that made you jizz? Sure the Alfa was nice, but there must be others you like (or maybe not, what do I know?) I find the VW CC, which like the Mercs is somewhat similar visually to the Sonata, to be totally beautiful. That new Regal is a looker too. Trying to think of older sedans I liked, especially more affordable ones…it's harder than I thought. I liked the old Buick Lucernes and LaCrosses, too, there I said it. And I like the Fusion, all of them (that fits the economical aspect, too.)

    Again, thanks for a great review!

  • Mr_Biggles

    Great review. Well done with good infotainment. I'm so-so on the exterior styling, but I really quite like the looks of the interior (despite your disclaimer on the pic). Like many others here, I would bemoan the lack of a proper transmission.

    I might also be worried about all those clear plastic bits on the engine starting to melt when it got up to temp. Cool looking yes, but practical? Actually, it kind of reminds me of that Visible V-8 model kit that used to be available back in the 70's.

  • anilkumar.ck

    iam verry interested about new sonata.when it introduse in india.i would like to buye.now iam using elantra.i love hyundai vehicles.but you just overlook dealers perfomence too.MGF hyundai ALAPUZHA,INDIA,cheated and a case pending in consumer court.i am suffering a lot and spend lakhs of rupees .and wasting my valueble time for this case.any way pls inform me the details and when it available in india.
    thank u

  • Hyundai is soon going to launch a small car in October, at a price range of around 3 lakhs with all the latest features and technology. Hyundai fans be ready for it.


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